Pennsylvania veteran heads across country to raise awareness about PTSD

By MATTHEW MEDSGER | The Pittsburgh Tribune Review (Tribune News Service) | Published: May 8, 2017

For many parents, the idea that their child would sell most of his possessions before a cross-country trip would be cause for concern.

But Douglas Dudzik and Barb Jones aren't upset with their son's decision to embark on a journey.

"I'm proud, but I'm going to miss him," Jones said.

Richard "RJ" Dudzik, 33, of Vandergrift, formerly a military police officer and a Purple Heart recipient, is on a mission. His journey, set to begin in the next few weeks, will not be aimless -- Dudzik will be driving cross-country to raise awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide rates of veterans.

"Statistically, 18 to 25 veterans take their lives every day. I lose a friend to suicide every few months -- and I understand what they are going through," Dudzik said.

Dudzik won't travel alone. His emotional support dog, a half-beagle, half-pug named Tank, will ride along with him.

On Saturday, Dudzik's family and friends held a surprise going away party for him. Supporters and the owners of FMJ Offroad of Butler put $13,000 worth of improvements into the Jeep he will drive.

Dudzik was so surprised he was overcome with emotion -- he needed several minutes to collect himself before he could thank everyone.

He plans to spend his time camping and living as lean as possible. An experienced photographer, he will provide free haircuts and headshots to any veteran he encounters who wants or needs them.

After service with the Army's 230th Military Police Company, based out of Kaiserslautern, Germany, Dudzik said he found himself at times heading into a downward spiral.

Dudzik was wounded in combat in one of the dozens of improvised explosive attacks he encountered during his time in Iraq. The shrapnel in his body left deeper scars than those visible on his skin, he said.

"Every single second of every single day is a battle in one aspect or another," he said.

At times, his fight with PTSD left him with nowhere to turn.

"I was legally homeless on and off for a total of six years as a result of feeling completely lost," he said.

Through the help of the Disabled American Veterans, Dudzik eventually found the treatment he needed from the Department of Veterans Affairs. His brushes with death and his difficult times taught him that he wasn't the only one who needed help.

That's what spawned the idea to travel across the country. Dudzik didn't want his fellow veterans to suffer alone. He said that he knows his way out of a dark place, since he's been there before.

"And if you are in that dark place, you need a physical presence to shake you out of it and say that you do matter, and I'm here for you," he said.

Dudzik has established a GoFundMe account to raise money for his journey. To donate, visit www.gofundme.com/byaVetfortheVetsMission. His progress can be followed on Twitter using the hashtag #ByAVetForTheVets.

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